Bringing Up Baby: Learning about the World through a TV Screen

Article excerpt

When Amanda Withers returned to Canada with her threemonth old son Matthew in tow after a work opportunity took her family to Europe for a few years, the new mom had never even heard of Baby Einstein DVDs for newborns. In Germany, clever wooden toys are all the craze. But it didn't take long for the buzz about screen time for babies to reach Withers after settling in to her home in Toronto. And the pitch had a decidedly North American sound to it, she says.

"The way it's marketed certainly preys on that North American need to give a leg up. Who doesn't want to give their child an advantage? It's hard to know what's right when you're listening to marketers," says Withers, now mother to two little boys, Matthew, who turns three in December, and baby Jack, born in March.

That's what the baby TV business is counting on. And the stakes are high for an industry keen to reach new parents before the computing and gaming industries gobble them up. So just as Fisher Price peddles the Fun 2 Learn Laptop to help preschoolers build academic skills before school even starts, the television industry muscles in even earlier, long before the diapers are discarded.

It's a perfect storm for parents of the diaper demographic, the convergence of two powerful forces coming from opposite directions.

On one side, sits a generation of anxious parents with a penchant for hyper-parenting, a new child-rearing style where scheduled educational activities designed to enrich the child's early life tend to dominate a child's day as part of a strategy to give babies an advantage by kindergarten.

Sensing this cultural shift in parenthood and seeing a business opportunity to further commercialize childhood, the push from industry to get the infants hooked on television is intense. The sales pitch to transform babies into pint-sized consumers is simple: these educational and enriching shows, produced by companies like Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby, are all about learning and designed to stimulate cognitive development.

Oh, and Einstein was a genius. And brainy baby is, well, a smarty-pants.

Or, if that's not obvious enough, or a parent has great aspirations for their budding little artist or musician, consider Baby Einstein's Baby Bach, Baby Galileo, Baby Monet, or Baby Wordsworth series. Or, you can just cut to the new Une of DVDs simply called Brain Candy.

There's little doubt the pitch is working. Surveys of American families with young children show a steady increase in screen time for infants and tots.

In 2003, the Kaiser Family Foundation revealed that 68% of children under two watched TV or videos daily. Further, about one in four, or 26% of these kiddies, had a TV in their bedroom.

Four years later, a separate survey with a comparable sample size of 1,000 families conducted by researchers at the University of Washington found that 40% of three month-olds and about 90% of kids aged two years or younger regularly watch television, DVDs or videos.

The survey, released in the spring, found that, on average, children began watching TV at nine months old, for about 40 minutes each day. By age two, the tots were watching, on average, 1.5 hours of screen time per day.

And there's little doubt new parents think TV time is good for their wee ones. The survey, conducted by professor of pediatrics Dr. Dimitri Christakis of the University of Washington and the Children's Hospital & Regional Medical Center, showed the top reason cited by parents for plopping their babies in front of the tube is they believe the activity is educational or good for their child's brain. That beat out being enjoyable or relaxing and time to get things done while the child is entertained.

It's no surprise the plethora of products keeps exploding to feed the demand to smarten up newborns and tots.

Established brands like the Walt Disney Company's Baby Einstein and Sesame Workshops are sharing the market share of infant eyes with upstarts like Brainy Baby. …